The term 'difficult second album' gets bandied about a lot in the music industry. Artists, who enjoyed successful debuts and have the world snapping at their heels for an equally well-received follow-up, find it hard to zero in on the direction they want to take. Filmmakers are no different. Director Ivan Ayr, though, had no such problems.
His debut film Soni premiered at the Venice International Film Festival's Horizons (Orrizonti) section in 2018, and two years later, he was back (virtually, though) with his new film Meel Patthar (Milestone). "I was just very hungry to tell another story. I didn't want to wait too long because I had a treatment in place already for this particular story.
Before I start putting words on paper, I start getting these flashes. And you want to shoot those scenes as quickly as possible because they're constantly pulling you towards them.
I just needed to find the right place to shoot it, and once we found this transportation zone on the outskirts of Delhi, the drive became even more aggressive," says Ayr over a Zoom call from his home in Chandigarh.
This deeply profound and layered 98-min-long film follows Ghalib (played by Surinder Vicky), an ageing truck driver who has recently lost his wife. Even as he is coming to terms with his bereavement, there is a palpable sense of loss in other aspects of his life too. Much like Soni, this film too examines the single life of its protagonist and a secondary character (an older cop in the former and a wet-behind-his-ears apprentice in the latter). But that is where the similarities end. While Soni, where two Delhi-based policewomen deal with everyday misogyny, was simmering with rage, there is an unmistakable air of decay and weariness to Meel Patthar.
Ayr, who had worked as an electrical engineer in the US for 13 years, had initially thought of setting the story there. When the self-taught filmmaker moved to India in 2019, he thought the core idea " of a lonely, veteran truck driver whose life seems to have paused, though he is always on the move " could be transplanted to India.
"Once I started exploring the transportation industry in India, I was completely convinced that this was where I wanted to shoot the film. The easy part was to then to adapt the story for India. Characters had to be slightly changed, but the human aspects are the same " someone who's given his entire life to this occupation, and has had to face a personal loss that he's partially to blame for, how he's come to terms with the present, and what he thinks his future is going to be." What helped in the adaptation was the similarity in the struggles of workers in our rapidly changing economy that has little regard for age, experience or loyalty. "India is becoming this cut-throat capitalistic society. We're not that different from the West," explains the 37-year-old, adding after a pause, "It's fairly unfair".
While Ayr had heard 'stories from his extended family who were a part of the transportation business, he spent some time with truckers at Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar on the outskirts of New Delhi. "There's a very stereotypical image (of truckers), and the reality is quite different. I also went to these small transportation companies that have been set up across this zone to see how things work, and how the whole ecosystem functions. It was partly location scouting and partly to find moments for the film." The screenplay by Ayr and Neel Manikant captures the sub-culture of trucking in stark detail " a compartment over the steering wheel in his truck contains his toothbrush, and there is a blanket behind the driver's seat, highway checkpoints have 'khaki wale daaku' (cops) who extract bribes for no reason. And there is the brash young son of the trucking company's owner who has no respect for older employees.
Even in this grim and often prosaic world, where money trumps all, Ayr inserts poetry. In one of the earliest drafts of the film, he zeroed in on naming the protagonist Ghalib "because he was going to be an aspiring poet." That idea was eventually axed but the name stuck. He picked Pash (Lakshvir Saran), named after the legendary Punjabi revolutionary poet assassinated by Khalistanis in the '80s, for the young recruit. "I thought it mirrored modern society in a very interesting way, because the names Ghalib and Pash to most people these days are just another set of names. It's a pessimistic and cynical perspective but I think it's got some truth in it. There are some who would recognise the names as poets, but for the large majority of India, these names hold no meaning anymore."
He might just be two films-old, but there is a distinct signature to Ayr's storytelling. He sketches working-class lives quietly, and with real affection. "My writing process starts with the character, and for me to continue, I really have to fall in love with it. The positives and negatives don't matter. It's more about what they do, and the way they are. They're the centre of my universe, and that's how I explore stories; it's also how I tell my stories " through my character's perspective."
And once it is time to translate the story from words to visuals, along with Colombian cinematographer Angello Faccini, Ayr prefers the fly-on-the-wall approach where he invites the viewer to immerse in the scene. "This choice comes from my desire to share my experiences with the audience, and inviting them into those moments to feel what the character is feeling. Then it's up to them whether they can feel for the character, whether they agree with the character's motivations, whether they approve or disapprove. I think it's a great way to have the viewer connect with the character and feel like they're also a part of his or her life and story."
In the opening frames of the film, Faccini's camera closely follows Vicky's Ghalib as he walks around his truck. As the film progresses, the viewer follows him every step of the way as the twitch in his lower back turns into a persistent ache, his lumbering gait gets more weighed down, and the weary lines on his face become sharper. Ayr first noticed Vicky in Gurvinder Singh's searing drama Chauthi Koot (2015). "Even though he earns his livelihood doing a lot of mainstream cinema, it so happens that Suvinder loves arthouse cinema. There's a different kind of challenge when you do a film like this, and he was up for it. He understood the style, the being of the character, and so it was very easy working with him." The only thing that Ayr had to convince Vicky to do was leave his beard alone for a few months. "He's only in his mid-40s, and we needed him to look a decade older so I told him to not colour his beard," he shared with a rare laugh.
Meel Patthar was shot around Delhi in January and February last year. And just as shooting was completed, the country went under lockdown. This meant that Ayr had to complete the film remotely. "I usually edit my own films " especially the first cut is something I put together on my own. After that, I like to collaborate with a consulting editor, which couldn't happen this time. My producer Kimsi Singh became the consulting editor in this case, and had some very good feedback. A lot of the credit for the edit goes to her." The hardest part of post-production was doing sound design remotely. "It's practically impossible to make judgments about sound design because you have a different set of speakers while the sound designer is working out of a studio. They're hearing things differently than you are, and so there's a lot of back and forth that can lead to a lot of frustration and unnecessary arguments."
Months of working virtually did not prepare Ayr for how much he would miss attending film festivals around the world via his laptop. "It was devastating. I'm not big on this whole Friday-theatrical release business but the festivals are a very intimate space. There's no other opportunity that's going to come your way when you're going to have face-to-face interactions with an audience and see live reactions. It's just very exciting to get questions right away, and see the audiences connecting with the film and its characters; which dialogues and scenes were remembered. And not just for me, also for the other people involved in the film. If the film screens at Indian festivals, there's a good chance that a lot of people associated with the film would be attending. It's beautiful to just relive the whole collaboration, and see your efforts come to fruition. It's what keeps artistes going, and that's something that's been taken away from us in this past year." With Meel Patthar finding its home on Netflix, ideally Ayr would have moved on to writing and planning his next film. While there are characters at the back of his mind and flashes of scenes that would normally compel him to put pen to paper, 'that drive is suppressed right now by the pandemic'. "It's going to take a while. I hope it's only suppressing it, and not killing the mojo."
Meel Patthar or Milestone will premiere on Netflix India on 7 May.